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10 Things We’ve Learned About Learning

For starters, laptops in classrooms are a big distraction, singing phrases can help you learn a language and multitasking isn't good for your grades.

Kids with laptops

Technology has pushed education in good and bad directions. Photo courtesy of One Laptop Per Child

It’s the time of year when learning seems remarkably possible. Students are excited, teachers are motivated–let the learnfest begin.

But by next month, it will become clear once again that the teaching/learning routine is a tricky dance, that all kinds of things, both in our heads and in our lives, can knock it off balance.

Fortunately, scientists have kept busy analyzing how and why people learn. Here are 10 examples of recent research into what works and what doesn’t.

1) Flippin’ it old school: The latest thinking has it that the most effective way to get students to learn these days is to flip the old model and instead have students first watch videos or read books, then do projects in the classroom. Au contraire, say researchers at Stanford University. They contend that you need to flip the flip after finding that students are much more likely to understand those videos and books if they first do hands-on exercises in class that tap into their prior knowledge of a subject, say to solve a problem. Only then, the researchers said, are students able to fully grasp more abstract concepts.

2) Such as “three idiot drivers”: Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Missouri found that preschoolers who have a hard time estimating the number of objects in a group were more than twice as likely to struggle with math later in life. Those researchers concluded that it has to do with a child’s inability to learn the concept of how numerals symbolize quantities. They suggest that parents should take advantage of opportunities to show how things in the world can be expressed in numbers.

3) Give that machine a timeout: Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario say that laptops in classrooms distract not only the students using them, but also those sitting nearby. They gave laptops to some students and asked them to perform certain tasks during class. They also asked classmates using only #2 pencils to complete the same tasks. Guess who performed worst: the kids with laptops, plus the people sitting next to them.

4) Like clockwork: Young girls need to stick to a regular bedtime if they want to help their brains develop. So says a study from University College, London, which found that girls under seven years old who had erratic bedtimes scored lower on IQ tests than girls who went to sleep around the same time every night. Inconsistent bedtimes also affected young boys, but the effect seemed to be temporary. The researchers also determined that when girls went to bed didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as whether they did so at the same time every night.

5) Let’s give them a big mazel tov shout out: One of the keys to learning a second language is the ability to pick up patterns, according to a recent study at Hebrew University. The scientists determined that American students who were better at learning Hebrew also scored particularly high on tests in which they needed to distinguish regularities in the sequence in which they were shown a series of shapes. Being able to spot patterns proved to be a very good predictor of who would have the best grasp of Hebrew after a year of study.

6) Not to mention, they can now sing in Hungarian at parties: It apparently also helps to sing the words of another language. In a study published last month in the journal Memory & Cognition, scientists said that people who sang back phrases they heard in a foreign language were considerably better at learning it than people who simply repeated the phrases in spoken words. In fact, research participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as those who learned by speaking the phrases. The study required English speakers to learn Hungarian, which is a particularly difficult language to master.

7) Brains are just so smart: Another recent study, this one by German scientists, determined that even under stress, humans are able to learn because certain receptors in the brain help us move from conscious and to unconscious learning. People in a study who were given drugs to block those receptors had more trouble learning in a stressful situation because their brains couldn’t make the switch.

8) Reading minds: Thanks to researchers at M.I.T., it may soon be possible to diagnose dyslexia in young children before they start trying to read. Using a type of MRI brain scan, the scientists discovered a correlation between the size and organization of a certain region of the brain and a child’s ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of language. By having a biomarker for dyslexia before they try to read, kids may be able to avoid some of the psychological stress they suffer when they struggle to understand written words.

9) Kids who can hand jive are off the charts: Turns out that it may a good thing for small children to talk with their hands. A study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, concluded that preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control. The gestures seemed to help the kids think things through, according to the researchers, who said the hand movements had a stronger correlation to successful performance than age.

10) Strangely, however, they are unable to hear parents: If you have kids in middle school or older, they’ve no doubt told you countless times how good they are at multitasking, that they can watch a video, text their friends and study for a test without breaking a sweat. But, according to a study published in a recent issue of Computers in Human Behavior, they’re probably not learning much. Not only were researchers surprised at how often kids in the study multitasked–even when they knew someone was watching– but they also found that their learning was spottier and shallower than those who gave studying their full attention.

Video bonus: Math was always a lot more fun when Abbott and Costello did it.

Video bonus bonus: Forgive me if you’ve seen or heard Kenneth Robinson’s lecture on changes in education, but his insights, along with the clever animation illustrating them, make it worth an encore.

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